More than three years ago in June 2001, Presidents Bush and Putin met in Slovenia for their first face-to-face talks. It was a get-acquainted session, and, at the end of the meeting, Mr. Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him straightforward and trustworthy. . . I was able to get a sense of his soul." For his part, the Russian leader said he viewed the United States as a partner.
Western experts on Russia say the rapport between the two men established at that meeting has solidified over the years, and has been a key factor in Russian-American relations.
But since that first meeting, Russia analysts say President Putin has taken a number of anti-democratic steps. He has centralized power in the presidency, weakened the strength of independent political parties and reined in the national media. Experts also point to Moscow's war against Chechen separatists, which has had a devastating effect on the civilian population in the North Caucasus.
Many experts say the good relationship between Presidents Putin and Bush is a double-edged sword. They say it has hindered Mr. Bush's ability to get tough with Mr. Putin when events dictate.
But following his recent meeting with the Russian President in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia on Feb. 24, Mr. Bush said he brought up the importance of democratic ideals. "I was able to share my concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles. I did so in a constructive and friendly way. I reaffirmed my belief that it is democracy and freedom that bring true security and prosperity in every land. We may not always agree with each other, and we haven't over the last four years, that is certain, but we found a lot of agreement, a lot of common ground, and the world is better for it," he said.
For his part, President Putin said Russia has chosen democracy and, in his words, "this is a final choice."
Marshall Goldman is a long-time Russia expert with Harvard University. He says going into the meeting, President Putin realized he would be criticized. "President Putin knew that there was more concern in the West, and that some people in the Senate were saying that Russia should not be admitted to the G-8 (group of major industrial nations), or even to the World Trade Organization," he said. "So, it certainly was an attempt, I think, by President Bush to respond to some of his critics, who say he has not been forceful enough with President Putin. But it was certainly not an all-out [fight], where President Bush said, 'you do it my way, or I leave.'"
Bruce Jackson is president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, an organization seeking to promote democratic reform in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He says it will be interesting to see if Mr. Putin continues down the authoritarian road.
"It really is up to Mr. Putin. If he insists on continuing down this path, I think that will lead Russia to disaster. Economically, it cannot work. It's not the kind of behavior we see in the 21st century, in the European space, in the Euro-Atlantic space, and it clearly will not help the Russian people reach their aspirations and their dreams over the next term, he said. "So this, hopefully, is an aberration in Russian politics, that he will come to his senses and stop this return to 19th century politics."
While the issue that dominated the Bush-Putin summit was Russia's commitment to democracy, the two sides agreed to expand cooperation to make sure that nuclear weapons are secure and accounted for.
Matthew Bunn, nuclear weapons expert at Harvard University, says the two presidents now must follow up on that agreement. "President Putin, in particular, needs to tell his people that keeping nuclear weapons and material out of Chechen hands is more important than keeping a few secrets out of U.S. hands, and Russia needs to offer expanded access," he said. "The United States needs to offer comparable access to U.S. facilities, and both sides need to work out specifics of arrangements to implement security upgrades at those places, which genuinely are too sensitive to allow the other side to visit."
Looking ahead to the evolution of U.S.-Russia relations, experts say President Bush is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he must continue to criticize any anti-democratic moves in Russia. On the other hand, that criticism must be such that it does not alienate President Putin and lead him to abandon certain bilateral agreements, such as the one making nuclear weapons sites more secure.